Open letter to Shane Smith

Posted on January 29, 2010

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(Shane Smith is the co-founder of Vice Magazine, a publication which, until recently, I enjoyed reading for their snark and incisive commentary on modern life)

Shane,

You recently traveled to Liberia to produce a “Vice Travel Guide to Liberia.” What a great idea, I thought at first. In spite of a difficult post-conflict phase and of the many challenges it has faced in recent years, Liberia is on the move. Its lush tropical rainforest, its incredible beaches and its growing service sector are all assets that make the country an increasingly attractive one for tourism. I know you worked with Myles Estey, a Canadian journalist who works for Journalists for Human Rights and writes an interesting blog about his time in Liberia. Myles has written for Vice before, and I’m sure he gave you a good primer on Monrovia and Liberia. Why, then, Shane, must you produce a video where you portray Liberia as full of heroin addicts, blood-thirsty ex combatants, whores and criminals? What kind of drugs were YOU on? Did you even open your eyes between the times you were in a heroin den and when you went to visit General Buttnaked at the church where he officiates?

Shane, I’m trying to understand how exactly your video is a “travel guide”. If it were an actual travel guide, perhaps you would have wanted to include actual places to visit – I wouldn’t have held it against you if you wrote about Liberia’s surf culture, like 90% of foreign journalists who come to Liberia and think they’ve stumbled upon an untold story. I might have rolled my eyes a bit if you recommended the Kendeja, the new multi-million dollar resort that caters to rich expats, as “the” place to stay. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you had chosen to visit the Ducor Palace, a former luxury hotel in the capital, which was completely destroyed and looted during the war, and offers stunning views of downtown Monrovia*. But, as Liberia expert Shelby Grossman wrote on her blog about your travel guide, “it perpetuates the idea that Liberia is violent and dirty and squalid.   It feels like a modern version of a colonial travel diary.”

View from the Ducor Palace

What kind of editorial choice was it to only show images of people getting high, cemetaries and church services held by former warlords? You must realize how completely off-base this is. Did you not meet any friendly, funny (and peace loving??) Liberians? And by the way, Shane, which hotel did you stay in when you were in country? Please don’t tell me you stayed at the Mamba Point, the Cape Hotel or the Royal Hotel – otherwise I’m going to be really pissed that you failed to mention their sushi bars, well stocked bars and wi-fi! I suppose you did not have a chance to meet Seanan Denizot or Menipakei Dumoe, who created WOW Liberia, a tour company that offers custom trips in different parts of Liberia. Did you not pick up a copy of Liberia Travel + Life Magazine? Maybe next time you come to Liberia, instead of hanging out in the slums, you could pick up a copy when you go to one of the three or four high-end supermarkets in the capital – it’s the same spot you most likely purchased overpriced Doritos.

Your video stirred a lot of debate among people who care about Liberia. The consensus, it seems, among people who know Liberia, is that your sensationalist, naive and utterly narrow take is not only misguided, but also really doesn’t help improve the country’s reputation. I’m sure a lot of viewers of the Vice travel guide will end up thinking that Liberia is a crazy place with crazy people, and only crazy freaks like Shane Smith would ever dare visit! Shane Smith is such a badass! (Yawn, Shane, yawn.)

I wasn’t going to join the “let’s-criticize-Vice-for-their-idiotic-travel-guide” bandwagon, as many eloquent, well spoken Liberiaphiles already responded to your absurd video. However, this morning I woke up to an email with a link to your interview in the Huffington Post. And what was originally mild contempt became indignation. Dude. Where do you get off talking about Liberia in the way you do? Excerpts:

Q: “The situation in Liberia, whether it be the violence or the poverty or the mounds of rotting garbage that are everywhere, appears pretty bleak. What surprised you most about the country during your time there?”

A:”Cannibalism was a big deal. How many people talked about it, how it was sort of prevalent. During the war, people would eat human flesh for necessity, but also for ritual. And it still continues. People would point at the old Masonic Lodge and say, ‘Oh, there was a lot of cannibalism there.’ Some of it is probably rumor and some of it is urban myth, but every single person you talk to is like ‘oh, yeah, yeah.’ And cannibalism is just something you never experience, or talk about over dinner; it’s never a discussion you’re used to having. And when you talk about it all day with everyone you meet, it starts to get a little bit unsettling. I’d say 90 percent of my conversations had some sort of cannibalism in them.”

Excuse me, Shane, but who are you speaking with that your 90% of your conversations involve cannibalism? I don’t think I discussed cannibalism a single time during my two months in Liberia – and maybe a handful of times in the three years that I’ve been working with Liberians. With everything that’s going on in Liberia, especially in lively Monrovia, the “most surprising thing” to you was talk about cannibalism…. That’s incredible. Literally.

Shane Smith: At any time, anywhere you would go, you’d be surrounded by 30, 40, 50 kids, and young people and whomever, and they all wanted money, they’re all starving. And if we didn’t have generals with us we would have been totally fucked up and if we hadn’t quite frankly lucked out a couple of times we would have been fucked up.

Q: You mean they would have just jumped you?

A: Oh, for sure. The crime rate in Monrovia is astronomical. The crime rate in West Point [a notorious slum] is even higher. If you have 80 percent unemployment, you can do the math: 80 percent of the population is doing something criminal then just to survive. And there’s not a lot of opportunity to get cash, so if some guy comes in with a car and a camera and a fucking nice pair of shoes, it’s more money than they’ve ever seen. So that part was scary.

Shane – really?? Are you really saying that 80% of the population are criminals? What’s absolutely baffling to me is that Myles – who helped you produce this video – is responsible for writing a series of well-researched, interesting and insightful blog posts entitled “Gettin’ By“, where he challenges the 85% unemployment rate figure (at least get your facts straight.) In this series, he talks about the t-shirt sellers, water vendors, or cell phone card vendors and other various occupations which are not taken into account when official statistics are produced. What he shows, in his series, is exactly the opposite of what you say. Not only are these 85% not criminals, they are courageous entrepreneurs who attempt to make a decent living for themselves, for their families, in the face of adversity. Oh yeah – and don’t forget to leave your “nice fucking shoes” in your fucking fancy hotel room if you don’t want people to eye them with envy, ok?

Hard working farmers in Bong County

You really miss the point, Shane. I guess this is a vanity project, and you probably feel so cool that you came back alive from West Point and your adventures with General Buttnaked. I can’t wait for you to visit Vladivostock, where they, as you say, “make this huge mountain out of garbage and then just shove it into the sea.” Sounds like you know your stuff! I’m sure I’ll know everything there is (not) to know about Vladivostock after you visit it.

Beautiful Liberia

I wish you had met the Liberians who are working so hard every day to improve their country. Those are the Liberians I know. I, like many others who reacted to your video with disgust, have the privilege of working with a lot of truly inspiring people in Liberia. Maybe you could meet the parents of the little boy with permanent brain damage from a vicious attack during the war (no doubt, that would interest you) who created the first center for children with disabilities. Maybe you could meet some of the women who work with Robertsport Community Works, and who are picking themselves up by the boot straps to improve their lives. Maybe you could get in touch with the locals who write for CeaseFire Liberia or pick up one (or even two!) of the many newspapers to see what’s actually happening in the country (hint: it very rarely involves incidents of cannibalism). Maybe, Shane, you can just open your eyes and your mind. Drop your prejudice and your romanticized notions of what you’d like Liberia to be. Maybe, then, you could actually produce something that is more than an appallingly substandard “travel guide”.

Del Johnson, founder of the first center for children with disabilities in Liberia, and his son Andre

* my bad – Smith goes to the Ducor in part 4 of the series. But, of course, fails to mention it by name or discuss any part of its history. Sigh.